An extensively edited extract:
As printed in Korean Stamp Review, 2nd, 1998;

Korean individuals on Stamps(I)

-The national hero,
Admiral Yi Sun-shin-


By    Lee Dong-Sung
Editing Adviser with Doosan





You will find an old Korean building, “Kyungbok­Kung”, a royal palace built in the days of Choson, facing north at Sejongno Square in the heart of Seoul, which is the capital of Korea. Further north beyond this ancient monument, the Presidential residence shows a part of its building, if not fully. Then a series of stately modern buildings line up shoulder to shoulder to the right and left in front of the palace mentioned above. They are; the Integrated Government Building, Sejong Cultural Center, the Ministry of Culture and Athletics, the Korea Telecom, etc. The square was, and still is, the hub of government-administration, the ganglion of state politics and the locus of “Yukjo” (six ministries of the government in the days of the Imperial Korea).

Here, the attention of any visitor will soon be focused on the giant bronze statue of a military general, standing upright amidst the square. He is clad in heavy armor, a huge combat-helmet on his head and a long sword firmly gripped in his right hand. He glares forward but slightly downward like a guardian deity of country. This is nobody else but Admiral “Yi Sun-shin”, the hero who saved the country in the days of the Japanese invasion of 1592.

The most shameful records in the past four thousand year history, that are still regarded ignominious to all Koreans may be the surrender of Choson to the Mongolian army during the Koryo dynasty, the

Korean Stamp Review-2nd, 1998            Page 15.


overall state-devastation on the occasion of Japanese invasion of 1592 (again in the Choson dynasty), and in modern times, the Japanese depredations of Korea's sovereignty.

For the first time in 1946, South Koreans, working within the U. S. Military Government Office, selected five topics to be issued during September - November 1946. They selected, five different themes for the stamp designs, which they felt were most symbolic, and that best represented Korea. These five designs were; the map of Korea, the national flower of Korea “Rose of Sharron”, the gold crown and the stone-tower for astronomical observation (both produced or built in the days of ancient “Shilla”, and considered symbolic as well as most representative of Korea’s fine art and science in those ancient days) and last but not least, the bronze statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin as the historical character to be remembered for ever and ever by all Koreans.

Shown here are the stamps most appropriate for our philatelic purpose, not in a quite refined way as they are still printed in typography. The stamps were issued during the U.S. Military Government, but they illustrate very well the excitement of Korean people on the occasion of the Liberation.

Admiral “Yi”, born in seoul in 1545, had never had an opportunity to shine in any sense in the government until he became 47 years old. He finally came into his element, but only when he had been promoted from the county magistrate of

Korea Stamp Review-2nd, 1998            Page 16.

  “Chindo” to the Naval Commander of “Left Cholla province".

Admiral “Yi” was a man of foresight and vision, who anticipated the forthcoming Japanese attack on the peninsula, and who had strengthened the country’s naval forces by building a new model of warship in the shape of a turtle (kobukson). The new ship was much stronger and speedier than the old models, and the Admiral had trained his crews with these new weapenry, all just for the preparation of victory in any possible sea battles with the Japanese navy.

Japan launched an all out attack on April 14, 1592, dispatching their naval fleet of more than 700 vessels boarded with 200,000 warriors. The attack was under the pretense of transit passage through Korea, to take punitive action against China for the latter's insolence against Japan. (China was under the Ming dynasty then)

Korea under the Choson dynasty at the time, was amidst an extreme political confusion and social disorder, and was without any suspicion of the Japanese aggression. Therefore, the defenseless country was not prepared when Japan attacked, and was trampled over in no time by the well-trained Japanese armies. The capital fell within a fortnight and the king took flight to the remote border-town “Uiju” on the Yalu River. For five years, Choson was in a vortex of possible disintegration. Both Kyongsang Navy Commands, Left and Right, crumbled in the early period of war, opening a wide passage for Japanese forces and enabling their easy landing onto Tongnae of Pusan. However, the situation was completely different in Cholla province where Admiral Yi had been waiting for them.

Victorious in the first encounter at Okp’o in May of 1592, and in the following battle at Sach’on, Admiral Yi's fleet had one-sidedly won in the series of sea battles, sinking more than 71 enemy ships with his flotilla of 50 ships, thus obliterating the core units of the Japanese navy, which wrested control of the sea from them. The imperiled Japanese army broke off their sea passage, which had linked Japan and their infantry forces in Korea, which stopped the Japanese replacement forces as well as the logistic re-supply of weapons and military provisions. This termination, affected the war thereafter most seriously against them.

The famed “turtle ships” built by Admiral Yi were used in the sea battles mentioned above and had been proved very effective. Particularlly, its gun power, and the protective iron-sheets covering the ships. Besides such strongpoints of the turtle ships, the Admiral’s excellent battle strategies and the well-trained navy crews eventually became the symbols of Japanese trepidation. In the sea battle off Hansan Island, the Admiral successfully decoyed the enemy fleets, which were under the shelter of a narrow harbour in the off­shore waters of Hansan-do Island. The Admiral's fleet surrounded them, and sank all of more than 70 enemy ships during his third attack mounted on July 6 to 13, deploying his famous “Crane’s Wing” formation, the most brilliant and fantastic victory ever made throughout “Imjinwaeran”(the war with Japan).

After this battle, he continued his operation of eliminating the remaining Japanese ships in the area, sinking or capturing altogether a bit more than 100 enemy ships. Furthermore, in his fourth assault on August 24 through September 2, he raided Pusan

Korea Stamp Review-2nd, 1998            Page 17.

  where the Korean navy there had once been thoroughly destroyed, in the early period of war. After confirming some 470 enemy ships being at anchor in the harbour, his fleet charged amidst the swarms of enemy vessels with the turtle ships leading the attack, followed by other warships. Again, this Korean attack blotted out over 100 enemy ships from the harbor.

Throughout numerous sea battles, the Admiral's fleet had never been defeated and was so seriously regarded as a formidable devil fleet, by Japanese sailors, that upon any sight of Yi's fleet, they used to flee in haste to any land, abandoning their ships and turning themselves into land-troopers.

Although the Japanese land forces had swept and freely trampled the country without any noticeable military resistance by Korean army,. Admiral Yi's control of the sea-lanes played a decisive role in reversing the adverse overall situation of war into something positive and finally led Japanese retreat in the end. With the supply routes of Japan being almost completely blocked by Admiral Yi, the Korean land-troopers slowly recovered from the initial shock and confusion, assisted by Korean guerrilla forces, large and small, who sprung up on all sides here and there, and a Ming Chinese relief army coming to join the war to assist Korea, Japanese forces had no choice but to repatriate their main units to Japan and withdrew their remaining units to the southern littoral of the Korean peninsula in April of the following year. In the meantime, Admiral Yi was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Naval Forces for the three southern provinces.

Now the intensity of war was cooling down, the situation developing into a lull, and thereafter the related parties began to talk about their cease-fire. Their truce talks lasted into 1597, when Japan became aware that the negotiation was not going the way it wanted; so on January 14, it invaded Korea again with renewed vigor and a huge 140,000 strong army. Seoul, surrounded, was once again on the brink of its final fall.

In the meanwhile, Admiral Yi had been arrested and jailed as a result of an intrigue against him in Seoul. He was barely exempted from the death penalty, but somehow, had been degraded from the chair of Commander-in-Chief into the lowest rank and file. A new Commander-in-Chief of the Naval Forces, Won Kyun, was appointed in his place.

The new Commander-in-Chief, nevertheless, falling into a trick on a sea-lane prearranged by Japanese, was overwhelmingly defeated in an encounter with the Japanese fleet, turning everything into a complete mess including the naval fleets Admiral Yi had so long strenuously built up.

The news of complete defeat had thrown all the government officials into a deep consternation, since they had regarded the navy as the most trustworthy stronghold the nation possessed. Flabbergasted, the government hastily reinstated Yi Sun-shin to his former post..

Korea Stamp Review-2nd, 1998            Page 18.

  Admiral Yi, determined to fight on against the formidable odds with the mere twelve warships and about one hundred twenty sailors remaining in his command. He engaged a Japanese fleet of 133 warships on August 13, as it was sailing the waters near Myongnyang, and sank 31 vessels of them. A resounding sea battle record indeed. The victory eventually led Korea to the full restoration of its previous naval forces.

Thanks to Admiral Yi’s professional ability and expertise, the naval forces of Korea were eventually improved about ten times better, in terms of quantity as well as quality, when compared to the previous levels in the days of Hansan-do. Admiral Yi was also renoun, for his policy of allowing farmers in the vicinity of his command post to cultivate “Dunjon” (farmland officially allocated to military forces stationed in an area for the production of military provisions by its stationary troopers). On the one-hand this policy helped improve the farmers’ economy, thereby increasing the morale of the war-tom community; and on the other-hand, led to easier recruitment of sailors from the population there.

When the Japanese leader “Toyotomi Hideyoshi”, died at last, the invaders inconspicuously began to prepare for their all-out evacuation back to Japan. They were in the process of collecting military vessels for the sea-transport. However, such a new move of Japanese naval forces couldn’t go unnoticed by Admiral Yi. Upon such report, he immediately began to persuade the naval admiral of Ming, who was reluctant and leary of any sea-bout. But he was successful in convincing him and jointly managed to wage the largest-ever sea battle since the war had begun, and wiped-out more than 400 ships of the enemy on November 19, in the seas off Noryang point. The last battIe of this seven-year war, however, had also terminated the life of our hero. Admiral Yi Sun-shin was shot by a stray enemy bullet, when he was directing the battle on board of his flag-ship, attacking the retreating Japatiese forces to the very end.

“Now, our all-out action is most needy! Don’t let any fighting members know of my death!” was the instruction of Admiral Yi before he breathed last. Following his instruction, the drum-beating at the flag ship continued, implying that Admiral Yi was in command, encouraging the sailors. Thus, the battle in the seas off Noryang point came to an end with a complete victory.

He saved the country with his unwavering patriotism for his motherland and the excellent leadership coupled with moderation and discretion. He was so outstanding in his tactics and strategies, that both his own crews as well as the enemy found him rather uncanny and eery. He had impressed everybody so strongly, that even enemy crews (let alone Koreans), paid deep reverence to his memory, and held him in awe, as well.

Ex-British admiral, G.A. Ballard, who is a researcher on British naval history has once highly assessed the personality of Admiral Yi Sun-shin praising that the latter could well be comparable with British Admiral Nelson.

The source of the original article's Photographs: MODERN STAMP CO.
TEL: (02)752-0201 779-0009

Korea Stamp Review-2nd, 1998            Page 19.

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